Hearing a vintage story unfold from the "walking treasures" we call seniors is always
a gift in and of itself. Listening last week to Herman and Josephine Smith tell their
tales was like having an early Christmas. Enchanted from their very first recollection,
I wanted them to keep unwrapping stored memories, one after another.
Herman will be 90 at the end of this decade, and both he and Josephine grew up in
Grant County. One of Herman's earliest memories is of digging ore during WWI and
taking wagon loads of it to Prairie City. "My dad took me to see the dredges too,"
recalls Herman adding, "To think of all that gold that was in the bedrock! Years later I
went prospecting with Josephine's brother and we dug 14' before hitting bedrock. There
was a big rock across the river and a solid rim also. We dug out the gold there with
Josephine grew up on a ranch about a mile north of their present home in Mt. Vernon. As
a youngster she rode fences, fed cattle, played cards, and attended the school at
Mt. Vernon. "I was kinda sickly though as a child," she says. Because of that, she was to
make a lifelong friend in Doc Hay.
"Old Doc Hay wanted to send me to China to meet all his relatives. He thought I would
really like it there. But I was too scared to go by myself. I was about 15 years old
at the time," says Josephine.
In 1930, four short years later, she and Herman married. In those days simple pleasures were hailed as triumphs.
Sometimes in summer saddle horses were trudged up Ingle Creek and packs were filled with snow to make ice cream.
And folks skated from Prairie City all the way to John Day on the river in winter.
Course there was capitol "S" snow back then. Lots of snow. "I remember a moment one
Christmas up Laycock creek just as you break over to Bear Valley. There was 5' of snow
and it was about 60 degrees below zero when I heard the pine trees crack as the sap froze solid," Herman says.
Their early married life was idyllic as they were posted together at the guard station and fire lookout at Calamity
Butte and Wolf Mt. for three years. They had a goat for milk and companionship for
the toddler. And their days were contentedly spent in service and duty to the forest.
"I'll never forget one moment there. I was talking to a fella at Kings Mt. when I saw lightning strike about 100
yards away. The next thing I knew the baby was crying and I was on the floor feeling like 12' long - like an accordian,"
says Josephine. She explains that she had not been sitting on her "lightning stool" which had insulators on
the bottom. Josephine was so good at spotting far away fires that she was nicknamed "Eagle Eye". She also spent time as a
cook at the Mt. Vernon school for a number of years. When her youngest son graduated, she left too. "There was nothing
holding me down then, so I started doing what I wanted," she says.
Herman dedicated 45 years of his life to carpentry. He built the gymnasium at Mt. Vernon school, and 100 houses both here and
in Coos Bay. And when I say built a house, I mean he did the wiring, plumbing, roofing,
everything. "It just seemed natural back then to work all morning and all night. I remember times working
till 11 p.m. under a trouble light to get everything done that needed doing," says Herman.
When they did have time to spare, they could be found out-smarting coyotes. Herman claims to have concocted a special coyote scent
that works like a charm. "I caught 102 coyotes in six weeks," he maintains. Josephine shared
in that success too by running the trap line when Herman could not. He has passed the
recipe on to his son for safe keeping.
Our reverie is catapulted into the future when their daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter appear.
Asked to babysit their great-grandchild for a short time, they beam and begin baby-proofing and cooing. "I never got to spend
any time with my own children, so it's wonderful to have a baby around to spoil," says Herman.
Josephine must surely think of old Doc Hay when she looks at their great-granddaughter. "Everyone said I shouldn't have children
because of my health. I went to Doc Hay and put my wrist on a little pillow. He took my pulse and told me I was alright -
to go ahead and have babies."
I still go to China doctors to this day. I have gone to traditional doctros too. But Doc Hay was really something, even after
he went blind. I came in pregnant once but nobody knew. After taking my pulse he told me to go home and make rompers," says
Josephine adding, "He really had a gift."
The Smith's are an example of two people who make their own luck. And you know fortune smiles on those kinds of people. You see it when
their great-granddaughter smiles and beams at them.
©1998 Roxann Gess Smith
All Rights Reserved
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